I went home to visit my mother recently in New Jersey. She’s 88 and lives in one of those vast, American, multiplex retirement communities where they have more activities than you can shake a stick at. You can join a hiking group, go into New York City to visit museums, or see a contemporary film on the premises. You can even get a Sam Adams for $2 at the weekly happy hour!
This one-stop shopping model is great, especially if you’re 88 and have limited mobility. Everything is right at your fingertips.
The problem occurs if you’re not elderly and want to do something “off campus.” Then you need to schlep down a long driveway and make your way out onto a piddly-ass state highway that contains…not much: The odd pizza joint. Some discount rug stores. And a Target (natch).
Other than seeing my mother, I was miserable. Leave aside for one moment that I no longer drive. There was nothing I wanted to drive to. (OK, that’s not entirely true. I did manage to frequent two diners in the course of 24 hours. Lordy, how I love a New Jersey diner!)
Research shows that people are happiest when they live within 15 mins of amenities they value: parks, libraries, coffee shops, and gyms. When you live closer to such things, you have more human interaction and also get more involved in your community. Makes sense.
The punch line of this research is that when looking for a place to live, you should focus less on the actual dwelling than where it is located. My husband and I are exhibit A. We were once trying to buy a house in Oak Park, IL (frequently voted the “coolest suburb” in Chicago.) We called the real estate agent in advance and instructed her not to show us anything that wasn’t within “10 minutes of good coffee.” (Good coffee was a proxy for everything we held dear about urban life and were reluctant to give up, despite having a 5 month-old baby at the time.)
She didn’t understand how literally we meant that statement. The first place she showed us was a lovely little bungalow that was a good 15 minute walk from nearest coffee shop. We told her it was too far. She stared at us in amazement. “Wow,” she said. “When you said 15 minutes, you really meant 15 minutes.” The next place was a five-minute walk from good coffee. We bought it.
Obviously, which amenities work for you will vary tremendously. I had breakfast with some friends recently who have a one-year old. They currently live in the city but have decided to buy outside of London. Their number one criterion? “We want to wake up and be able to see green and go for long walks.” I have another friend who simply wants to be able to walk to Church.
I currently live in a neighborhood in London where, within a 15 minute walk – I can go to an arty film, swim in my local pool, and crucially, buy from a selection of over 400 high-end beers. (Are you sensing a theme here?)
How about you? What makes your neighborhood work for you? And if it doesn’t, what kind of amenities would you seek out?